What do today’s right-wing Quebec and Israeli nationalists share in common? A claim to victimhood that enables them to deny their role in oppressing others.
This commonality became clear when a prominent right-wing Quebec nationalist politician cited the French language and Jewish sensibilities to criticize immigration and the veil. It also reflected a historic reversal in Québecois-Jewish relations. More significantly, it highlighted the dangers of an “empowered sense of vulnerability,” a psychological state many Quebeckers and Jews seem to share.
(I admit, up front, that generalizations about large groups of people most often reflect nothing more than ignorance — sometimes wilful — but simplification is also a necessary tool for the construction of useful theories.)
At the end of August, Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) leader Francois Legault called for slashing the number of immigrants to Quebec by 10,000 a year to protect the French language. “I have deep concerns about the survival of French in the long term in Quebec,” Legault explained at a press conference. Alongside his anti-immigrant announcement the former Parti Québecois minister criticized the Montreal police for allowing women to wear hijabs on the job. Legault asked how a Jew would feel interrogated by a veiled policewoman.
A right-wing nationalistic politician citing Jewish sensibilities to oppose a police decision is a historic turnaround. In the annals of Canadian history, Quebec anti-Semitism is probably the most widely discussed variety. Most infamously, medical students at Montréal’s Notre-Dame Hospital went on strike in 1934 to block a Jewish student from taking up a senior internship.
But, Quebec anti-Semitism has been overemphasized in English Canada (at least in relation to the WASP variety) to undermine Quebec nationalism. Driven by Catholicism and simple xenophobia, anti-Jewish animus in Quebec was also enmeshed in legitimate majoritarian cultural and economic aspirations stifled by an Anglo elite, which Jews largely aligned with.
Francophones discriminated against Jews, yet were themselves subjugated by Anglos. While broadly recognized, this history is rarely contrasted with Francophone-Jewish oppression of others. From an Indigenous perspective, both groups’ wealth was largely derived from land stolen from First Nations.
In addition to stealing territory, French settlers enslaved Indigenous people. Aaron Hart, the first Jew who arrived with the conquering British forces in 1759, became the wealthiest landowner in the empire outside Britain. He and other Jews living in current day Quebec also held Africans as property. To better situate relative historic oppression, a Jew became grandmaster of the anti-Catholic Orange order in British North America three years after slavery was abolished while Toronto elected Nathan Phillips, its first Jewish mayor, in 1955, five years before Indigenous people gained the right to vote in Canada.
Even compared to some other “white” groups, French-Canadians and Jews have fared not so bad. During the First World War, thousands of Ukrainians were interned while 600 Canadians of Italian descent were jailed in the Second World War. In the mid-1800s, thousands of Irish died of typhus at an inspection and quarantine station on Grosse Ile in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Neither Jews nor Francophones suffered equivalent abuse.
Never at the bottom of the totem pole, both groups retain (broadly speaking) a distinct identity. French-speaking Québecois and Jews have also had the capacity to articulate their own histories. Both groups also share (again pardon the generalization) a sense of victimhood far out of proportion to their Canadian experience, which blinds many to their own religious/ethnic supremacism.
Quebec has more equitable child care, rent control, parental leave and post-secondary education systems. It also has an appealing pacifist current and Montreal has the most dynamic left protest culture of any city north of the Rio Grande. But, when it comes to race, I’d take Calgary over Quebec City, Kelowna over Shawinigan.
It took me a while to realize this. During my first few years in Montreal, I rejected the idea that Quebec nationalism enabled xenophobia. Now I see signs of it regularly.
A recent Journal de Montréal advertisement pictured its 23 columnists. All the faces were white, yet the ad noted: “Composed of personalities from all milieus and trends, our columnists offer a large diversity of opinion.”
To the left of the ideological spectrum, a September L’aut’journal commentary criticized multiculturalism and suggested an independent Quebec would restrict immigration. According to the nationalist paper’s publisher, Quebec currently requires immigrants to maintain its numeric and political strength within Canada but that would change with independence.
After winning office in 2012 the traditionally social democratic Parti Québecois stoked a “reasonable accommodation” debate simmering since a racially homogenous village between Montreal and Quebec City, Hérouxville, moved to write a code of conduct for immigrants in 2007. Deciding it was easier to dump on the most marginalized immigrants than challenge neoliberalism, the Parti Québecois introduced a Charter of Values targeted at removing veiled women from public sector jobs.
While the Charter of Values was presented as protecting Quebec’s secularist identity, a secularist movement worth its tabernacle would start by targeting the most ostentatious religious symbols and the last time I looked a big cross remains atop the mountain in Montreal’s name. Another adorns the national legislature in Quebec City.
Protecting a colonial language
I first encountered the blinders imposed by Quebec’s emboldened sense of vulnerability when Canada helped overthrow Haiti’s elected government in 2004. Quebec-based politicians, businesses and NGOs led Canada’s violent, undemocratic policies. In contrast to their generally weaker English Canadian counterparts, the Quebec Left largely supported the coup (or stayed quiet).
During three years of campaigning with Haiti Action Montréal a (broad) racial or linguistic pattern emerged: the more “pure laine” Québecois a person or institution, the more likely they were to be antagonistic to Haiti’s impoverished majority. Nationalist/leftist Le Devoir’s coverage of the coup was by far the worst of the city’s four dailies. Within La Presse, Mauritius-born Jooneed Khan was a singularly sympathetic voice while the Montreal Gazette included a few sympathetic reporters. The Mirror and Hour were also better than their francophone alt-weekly counterpart Voir.
The divide was also evident within left provincial party Québec Solidaire. Iranian-born spokesperson Amir Khadir was nominally sympathetic to Haiti solidarity activism while co-spokesperson François David traveled to the country in the midst of the coup government’s crimes. Upon her return, she parroted the elite’s perspective on Radio Canada and elsewhere, blaming supporters of the ousted government for violence. Later she spoke alongside Danielle Magloire, an individual who was part of the seven-person group that appointed the brutal coup prime minister Gérard Latortue.
Within nationalist intellectual circles Haiti has a certain cultural cachet. It’s partly based on the Haitian diaspora living here, but there are three times as many Quebeckers of Italian descent without the same mystique. Quebec’s relationship to Haiti is largely based on paternalism and a purported linguistic commonality. A 1984 North-South Institute report titled Canadian Development Assistance to Haiti explains that country’s importance to Quebec: “As the only independent French-speaking country in Latin American and the Caribbean, Haiti is of special importance for the preservation of the French language and culture.”
But, most Haitians don’t speak French. French is the language of Haiti’s elite and language has served as a mechanism through which they maintain their privilege (10 per cent of Haitians speak French fluently while basically everyone speaks Haitian Creole). A Quebec group in Haiti almost invariably reinforces the influence of French in that country. Whether conscious or not, a French-focused foreigner in Haiti has taken (at least linguistically speaking) a side in the country’s brutal class war. (In terms of Haitians adopting a more useful common second-language, Spanish would facilitate ties with the eastern half of the island while English would enable greater relations with other parts of the Caribbean.)
While the linguistic and class French-Creole divides are particularly striking in Haiti, similar divides exist in most former French colonies. Aside from Quebec, is there any place in the world where French is the language of the oppressed? Yet, to project this province’s linguistic heritage, Quebec provides more development assistance than other provinces and Ottawa expanded its aid to “Francophone” nations to placate Quebec nationalists.
Within the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) claims responsibility for relations with “French”-speaking countries. In the months after the removal of Haiti’s elected government, progressive elements within the CLC tried to pass a resolution critical of Canada’s role in overthrowing Jean Bertrand Aristide’s government and supporting a murderous dictatorship. The FTQ worked to dilute it and the Quebec labour federation repeatedly justified the coup.
One reason Québec groups were hostile to Haiti’s elected government was that Aristide promoted the Creole language at the expense of French. Progressive Quebec intellectuals and NGOs were tied to a Haitian elite benefiting from the power of French.
During a stint working for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) union in Ottawa, I chalked up a white supremacist office dynamic partly to an empowered sense of linguistic vulnerability. The predominantly francophone Quebec office staff were righteous about bilingualism, which made sense for a pan-Canadian union. But, it made me wonder if this blinded the generally well-treated office to its lily-white character in a neighborhood with many of Arab and Somali descent. When the union collapsed into Unifor in 2013 and the national office transferred to Toronto, I briefly worked in a significantly more racially diverse space.
Are Canadian Jews underdogs?
Toronto opened my eyes to another group’s empowered sense of vulnerability. In summer 2014 I saw thousands demonstrate in favour of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, a small strip of land inhabited by Palestinians mostly driven from their homes in 1947/48.
I was shoved, spat on, had my bike damaged and lock stolen by men wearing “never again” T-shirts. My offence was to chant “kill more Palestinian children” as hundreds of Jewish Defense League and B’nai Brith supporters rallied at Queens Park to applaud the onslaught on Gaza in a counter demonstration to those opposed to Israel’s massacres.
Over the two-month long “war,” I witnessed numerous random outbursts of anti-Arab racism. During a rally on Bloor Street a middle-aged man walking with his partner crumbled a leaflet I handed him, pointed at two older Arab looking men who responded, and yelled “barbarians.” In a similarly bizarre racist outburst, a man who was biking past a demonstration stopped to engage and soon after he was pointing at a young Arab looking child close by and telling me that I was indoctrinating him to kill. And then an older woman interrupted a phone conversation I was having about Israel’s destruction of Gaza and yelled she hoped Israel kills “10,000 more.”
But, it was a young man in a tank top who embodied the dangers of an empowered sense of vulnerability. The stereotypical college football quarterback stood at the end of a 300 metre long fence separating competing rallies and berated largely recent immigrant Muslim families arriving at the Ontario legislature. When I confronted him, he invoked “never again,” but once he realized I wasn’t having the Jewish victimhood shtick the privileged looking twenty-something simply flipped the script, unleashing a torrent of racist, supremacist, views.
In a more sophisticated way the establishment Jewish organizations did the same. In the midst of Israel’s 2014 onslaught on Gaza United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith, Canada Israel Experience, March of the Living Canada and the Jewish National Fund organized a pro-war demonstration under the banner: “We Will Not be Silent: A March Against Global Anti-Semitism.” The Times of Israel reported: “The purpose of the march was passionately summed up in Bill Glied’s closing remarks: ‘Thank God for the IDF [Israel’s army]. Thank God for Israel. And remember together we must stand. Never again!'”
Framed as a challenge to prejudice, the march was little more than a group of white people calling for the further subjugation of brown folk. About 1,500 Palestinian and six Israeli civilians were killed during the seven-week war.
In another stark example of the Jewish establishment’s empowered sense of vulnerability, two weeks ago the Atlantic Jewish Council packed Halifax Pride’s annual general meeting with straight white men to vote down a Queer Arabs of Halifax resolution to disallow the distribution of materials at the Pride Fair touting Israel’s purported LGBT-friendliness. Queer Arabs of Halifax claimed these materials were part of an Israeli campaign to “pinkwash” its violations of Palestinian rights. After the vote an audience member reportedly yelled “‘Straight white pride wins again’ and a contingent of BIPOC people [Black, Indigenous and People of Colour], many with tears in their eyes, angrily left the room.”
In April, Canadian Jewish News editor Yoni Goldstein responded to my criticism of his paper’s racism and abuse of the term “anti-Semitism” by claiming “Jews are the main victim of hate crimes in Canada.” Nonsense. What Goldstein ought to have written is: “Jewish organizations are best equipped to catalogue and publicize hate crimes targeted at their community.”
At a time when institutional anti-Semitism had largely disappeared, B’nai Brith started producing an annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents in Canada in 1982. In A History of Antisemitism in Canada, Ira Robinson writes, “the scope and sophistication of the Audit’s reporting have greatly increased in the more than 30 years in which the report has appeared, as have the number of incidents reported.”
Many of the allegedly anti-Semitic incidents B’nai Brith catalogues are expressions of Palestinian solidarity activism. Their 2014 report noted: “Toronto — Woman at Israel support rally harassed as she was walking home because she was carrying an Israeli flag. Calgary — Fuck Israel spray painted on roadway. Winnipeg, Calgary, Toronto — Multiple assaults take place at Pro-Palestinian or Pro-Israel rallies.”
In Underdog: Confessions of a Right-Wing Gay Jewish Muckraker, Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy implies Jews are “underdogs.” In a Jewish Forward interview, she noted: “The number of anti-Semitic people out there, and the volume of virulent and vitriolic emails I get, is appalling.”
But, there’s little socio-economic data to back up the idea of Jewish victimhood in Canada. Do Jews have higher unemployment rates? Are they overrepresented in jail? Do they commit suicide more often? Are their children more likely to be taken from their care? Do they have higher high-school dropout rates? Are they underpaid for equal work? Is their legal discrimination against Jews?
It is simply preposterous to claim Jews are underdogs in Toronto. Among elite business, political and professional circles Jewish representation surpasses their slim 1.3 per cent of the Canadian population. Canadian Jews are twice as likely as the general population to hold a bachelors degree and three times more likely to earn over $75,000. In The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences and Culture, Mark Avrum Ehrlich claims a fifth of the wealthiest Canadians were Jewish and Toronto’s Shalom Life reported that six of the 24 Canadians who made Forbes’ 2011 list of global billionaires were Jewish.
An exclusive inner-city suburb, Hampstead reflects Jewish ascension in Montréal. Until after the Second World War, Jews were largely excluded from the small municipality modeled after the Garden City movement, a late-1800s move by London’s elite to move out of the city centre. Without retail shops in its boundaries, Quebec’s second-wealthiest municipality is now three-quarters Jewish.
A specialist in Canadian Jewish history, Harold Troper provides a window into Canadian Jewry’s empowered sense of victimhood:
“Jewish students in my classes…feel a strong proprietary right to the history of anti-Semitism, to the Holocaust, and to the earlier era of overt anti-Jewish discrimination in Canada. It is their proximate history, a basic element in their Jewish identity…That their experience of anti-Semitism is secondhand or thirdhand, however, does not seem to weaken their deeply held and often expressed conviction that anti-Semitism is a clear and present danger today.”
But, as a group Jews in Canada are not oppressed. Nor are Quebeckers. This is not to say there isn’t anti-Jewish prejudice or that federal government policies considered pro-Québec don’t elicit anti-Quebec comments. But, in both groups’ case this prejudice has little impact on their material or social reality.
Born 80 years earlier, François Legault would probably have supported Montréal medical students’ anti-Jewish strike. But, times have changed. The right-wing nationalist politician now sees Jews as potential allies in his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant campaign.
No matter whether his political calculation is correct, Legault’s outlook highlights a historical reversal. And it reflects an ever-present danger of nationalism — be it Israeli or Quebec — when claims of historic victimhood are used to oppress others, the ideology is no longer progressive, but rather has descended into xenophobia, jingoism and racist chauvinism.